When You're Cutting The School Budget, Try Talking To The Kids


This is beyond a doubt a tough budget year for the city, the county, and the state. A very tough one. Which means it's going to be a tough budget year for our schools.

I've seen some tough budget years in my days. In fact, I was born in 1932, during the very depths of the Depression, and I've seen some really tough budget years.

I entered school in New York City in 1938. That year my family was paying $16 dollars a month for the downstairs apartment in a two-story house on Brook Street on Staten Island. Nice place, too. Didn't have any heat in winter because the hot water furnace froze up and broke one year when there was no money for coal, but we had a couple of kerosene heaters and plenty of blankets. 1938 was a year when you could walk down Brook Street at any time of day, on any day of the week, and see men and women sitting on their front stoops and talking. What they talked about most of the time was the reason they were sitting there on those stoops.

Couldn't find a job.

Not a good job. Not an easy job. Not an interesting job with a future, a retirement plan, medical insurance and paid holidays.

Any job.

It's a scary thing not having any money in your pocket, not even a nickel, and no way to get any. And yet, even though the people were broke, and the city was close to broke, and the state too, our schools kept running.

When things get really bad, you see, people always seem to know what's really important.

So what did they cut out of the school budget back during those long, gray, miserable years of the Great Depression?

And what did they leave in?

Hm-m-m-m. That's not going to be easy to get down on paper.

Tell you what. Why don't I do this? Why don't I tell you the things I remember best about good old Public School 16, the things I felt were really important? Perhaps that will give you something to go on when you're cutting the fat out of the school curriculum.

I remember a kindergarten game we played called "Pin the Tail on the Donkey."

They put us under a sheet and turned us around and around to make it a challenge to get that tail where it belonged.

I thought I was pretty smart. I noticed the floor boards and figured out that spin or no spin I could use them as a guide.

Trouble is, I got 180 degrees out and tried to pin the tail on a cute little girl named Joy that I had a crush on. So much for smart!

In New York at that time we moved up by half years. We had 1A and 1B, 2A and 2B, and so on.

I remember Miss Banke in 1A. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I can still picture her face. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Smiling lips. A warm, caring voice to go with them. Oh me!

I remember Miss Palmer in 1B too. She was the scariest old lady who ever ran a classroom. She could lift a kid right off the floor by the hair with one hand and shake him like a rag doll.

I remember a trip with Miss Palmer to the library down by the ferry that ran back and forth across the harbor to Manhattan. I was proud of the library card they issued me that day. I took out a book. It was the first library book I ever read, a book of Chinese fairy tales. I've read a lot of library books since then.

I remember the field trip to the Staten Island Museum, where I became a member. I liked the museum. I did not like a kid named Sam who was crazy about tarantulas, had one for a pet, and let the ones at the museum walk on his arm. But Sam and I used to go to the club meetings together, so we eventually became good friends.

I remember the records they played for us one afternoon a week, some classical, some not. My favorite was "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Another one I liked was "A Night on Bald Mountain." I still love classical music, but then I love all kinds of music.

I remember the songs we used to sing sometimes instead of listening to records. One song I liked singing was "The Volga Boatman." Another was "Old MacDonald." But I loved singing "God Bless America" the best. We all did. Made you feel good.

I remember a drawing that a girl did one day while we were having art class. She drew it with the very same crayons that the rest of us used, but it didn't come out like ours did. I could really see the reflections in the dark water beneath the rounded stone bridge she drew. And that little sailboat she drew looked real too. I remember wondering how she could draw like that. It made me want to draw, and paint too. Took a long time to learn to do it, but selling that first painting made it worth it.

I remember the assemblies we used to have. They were great. There was always something interesting. I remember one Halloween assembly really well, the one where I stood up in front of the whole school with my knees shaking and read a poem I had written.

Don't have that poem any more. Got a lot of other stuff. Tons of it. Mom had that poem. Don't know what she did with it.

I remember the multiplication tables in -- I think -- 3A. We learned them the easy way, the way you learn the words of a song. We just said them out loud until we couldn't forget them.

I remember the day in 4B when "pyramid" was a vocabulary word. I was glad. I loved reading about the pyramids, but I had never heard the word said out loud and I used to pronounce it to myself as pie-muh-rad. It sounded better the right way.

I remember the field trip to Sailor's Snug Harbor, a place where retired merchant mariners kept a zoo. It was terrific!

They had a whole pit full of alligators. And one of the monkeys picked up some stuff (off the bottom of the cage, you know?) and threw it at a kid I hated. After seeing animals up close that I'd only seen in pictures, zoos kind of became a habit with me.

I remember ... uh-oh, I can see that I'm going to run out of space before I get to the important stuff. And on top of the important stuff, I wanted to tell you about the puppet shows, the hands-on science classes, the shop classes -- a lot of things.

What can I say? I told you about the things I remember best. I know they aren't anywhere near as important as some other things are, but ... well, they're the ones I remember best.

Sorry about that.

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